No matter who becomes the Palestinian figurehead in the weeks following the death of Yasser Arafat, his replacement is unlikely to be as infamously popular with schoolchildren. At Purim, when young Israelis dress up much like Americans at Halloween, the most popular costume year after year is the black-and-white kaffiyeh and three-day stubble of the world's best-known Palestinian. Such is the arc of the patriarch's controversial life: part folk hero, part war legend, and part ghoul.
Mr. Arafat arose from guerrilla obscurity in the aftermath of the Israeli-Arab Six-Day War to lead, beginning in 1969, a wide-ranging group of militant Palestinian factions known as the Palestine Liberation Organization, or PLO. His tenure as PLO chairman lasted until a Paris hospital announced his death on Nov. 11-spanning the terms of 11 Israeli prime ministers and nine U.S. presidents.
By posing himself alternately as peacemaker and provocateur, he became the longest-surviving strategist of the modern Middle East and likely the most durable guerrilla leader in a century. His acceptance as a statesman disguised a mission that fluxed between the destruction of Israel and the creation of a Palestinian state within Israel's borders. But the epitaphs and accolades-including a Nobel Peace Prize-cannot hide a criminal record, not only against Israelis but against the Palestinians he claimed to fight for.
As PLO chairman his first maneuver was to take control of Palestinian refugee camps in vulnerable Arab states-at that time, Jordan and Lebanon-and to convert them to bases of operation for attacks against Israel.
Along with further impoverishing displaced Palestinians, the camps became targets for retaliatory strikes from Israel, thus launching Mr. Arafat's notorious love-hate relationship with his Arab counterparts. At one critical juncture, Mr. Arafat was forced to flee Amman dressed as a woman after King Hussein ordered a full-scale army offensive to rid Jordan of the PLO. Taking refuge in Lebanon, the PLO hooked up with Muslim militant groups and Palestinian refugees to destabilize long-time Christian and Muslim coexistence. Before Mr. Arafat's arrival, Lebanon was over 50 percent Christian. After 20 years of civil war instigated in part by the PLO and involving Israel and Syria, its Christian population dropped to less than 30 percent.
Once Israel withdrew from Lebanon, Mr. Arafat turned his compass to Israel's disputed West Bank and Gaza Strip, launching from his exile in Tunisia the first intifada, or Palestinian uprising, in December 1987. A second bloody intifada began in 2000 after Mr. Arafat rejected the boundaries proposed by the Clinton administration and endorsed by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, ending an eight-year peace process known as the Oslo Accords. The plan would have given the PLO leader a Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital.
Support for Mr. Arafat from the PLO's militants-particularly suicide bombing squads attached to Islamic Jihad and Hamas-grew after the Oslo rejection, along with financial support from Arab dictators like Saddam Hussein. In the Palestinian streets, however, affection for "Abu Ammar," as he is known, was starting to unravel. Many realized that, along with Israel's confinement of Palestinians, Mr. Arafat was willing to allow them to languish for generations in refugee camps in order to boost his own leverage with Israel and the West.
"Instead of accepting an opportunity that would lead to the end of the Israeli occupation, he turned his back on a Palestinian state," wrote leading Arab journalist Huda Husseini in September 2003. "Arafat's problem is that he wants to prove that nothing will be realized without him, [while] it is obvious that nothing will be realized with him."
Terrorist attacks against Israel prompted Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to confine Mr. Arafat to his headquarters in the West Bank at Ramallah. In declining health and milking a messiah complex, Mr. Arafat still could not stanch the erosion of support among his own people. He faced growing criticism within Palestinian ranks for refusing to turn over power-including control of Palestinian armed forces-to the Palestinian prime minister and the Palestinian Authority legislative assembly. Many were increasingly alarmed by reports of corruption and disclosures of Swiss bank accounts where Mr. Arafat stashed millions in international aid meant for Palestinians, while his wife enjoyed a lush Parisian exile. "Yasser Arafat is stepping on the corpses of the Palestinians," charged a former Arafat commander, Mohammad Dahlan, earlier this year. His standing in Palestinian opinion polls hovered at 30 percent.
As Mr. Arafat slipped into a coma after being flown to Paris for treatment, then died at age 75, his successors sought to stoke the flame of legend. Financial advisor Muhammad Rashid said last week that the PLO leader "has no personal property anywhere in the world, not a tent, nor a house, nor a building, nor a farm."
Middle East experts, however, contend that his death carries the first hope of progress in decades for Israeli-Palestinian relations. "His death doesn't necessarily mean it's going to go downhill," said Kamal Nawash, president of the Free Muslim Coalition Against Terrorism and a Palestinian. "It could be the expressway to peace."
Baruch Maoz, a longtime Christian pastor in Israel, agrees. "Except for a relatively small and radical fringe element in Israeli society, the majority of Israelis will be open to a large territorial compromise," he said. "On the Palestinian side, the majority might not be willing to say that they considered Arafat to be an obstacle, but will regard the situation as if he was."
One small sign of shift came even before Mr. Arafat died, when Palestinian Authority leaders went out of their way to end rumors that Israelis had poisoned Mr. Arafat. "There is a groundswell of discontent among younger Palestinian leaders over the corrupt Palestinian Authority, and practiced by [Mr. Arafat] himself," Mr. Maoz told WORLD.
Jockeying for control over the Palestinian leader's interlocking web of municipal and militant agencies will not likely end soon, even though the Palestinian Authority moved quickly-within 24 hours of his death- to name Mahmoud Abbas head of the PLO and to swear in Rawhi Fattuh as acting president of the Palestinian Authority. Most observers believe Mr. Abbas will eventually take over as president, also.
The key test, according to Walid Phares, senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, will be whether Hamas and Islamic Jihad win representation within the new leadership corps. If they do, Mr. Phares said, it will signal weakness in the Palestinian leadership. "If they won't include them, and distance themselves, this means they will clash with them in the next six months," he predicted.
Mainstream Palestinians, according to Mr. Phares, "know there is only one way, especially with the election of the Bush administration"-that is, to move quickly away from terrorism. "Nobody in the world is going to support war after war against the Israelis," Mr. Phares said. But if Palestinian leaders wait too long to change, they may be co-opted by elements from Syria and Iran or infiltrated by Islamic radicals, he warned. And that, like Mr. Arafat's piebald headscarves, would mean a return to the Palestinians' tragic and checkered past.
-with reporting by Priya Abraham